The war may have ended on November 11, 1918, but Private Milton Duncan – dangerously ill with bronchial pneumonia – was still fighting the greatest battle of his life.
On October 16, he had been admitted to hospital from the field in France and, by November 7, was dangerously ill in the 41st Stationary Hospital, according to a telegram received by his mother, Elizabeth Duncan, in Canungra.
Milton’s life hung in the balance for weeks and a series of telegrams to his mother tell the story of his hard-fought battle to survive.
Still dangerously ill, Milton was transferred to the 12th General Hospital in Rouen on November 14. The first sign that he was winning his fight for life was a telegram reporting his condition as “stationary” on November 20.
It was December 2 before Milton’s name was finally removed from the dangerously ill list. He was then transferred to England aboard the Aberdonian on December 13 and was taken to Boscombe hospital, still suffering severe pneumonia.
Another telegram, dated February 22, 1919, informed Mrs Duncan that her son had been a patient at the 1st Australian General Hospital since February 10 and that his condition was improving.
Milton was still considered an invalid when he boarded the HT Wandilla on March 31 to return to Australia. He arrived in Melbourne on May 18 – almost seven months after becoming ill.
A sawyer, Milton was a son of the pioneering Duncan family – for whom Duncan Street was named – that had played a key role in the development of Canungra as a timber town.
Milton was almost 23 years old when he enlisted on January 8, 1916 – the same day as his older brother, Alexander Duncan – and left Brisbane on the HMAT Seang Choon on April 4, 1916. Arriving in Alexandria on June 15, Milton embarked with the British Expeditionary Force for France on the Franconia on August 2.
Initially allotted to the 13th reinforcements of the 26th Battalion, Milton was transferred to the 49th Battalion which had been raised in Egypt six months earlier, in February 1916.
Milton joined his battalion in France in late September and during the next months endured the horrendous winter of 1916-17 in the trenches as the 49th alternated between front-line duty and training and labouring behind the lines.
In early 1917, Milton was part of the pursuit of the Germans to the Hindenburg Line and the battalion’s support of the 13th Brigade’s attack at Noreuil in April.
He was wounded in action during the Battle of Messines in June, suffering a gunshot wound to the arm. It was two months before Milton rejoined his unit, returning in early September before the Battle of Polygon Wood.
Facing another bleak winter of trench warfare, Milton was lucky enough to get leave to England for Christmas and the New Year, returning to the front on January 10, 1918.
When the German Army launched its Spring Offensive in late March, the 49th Battalion was moved to defend positions around Dernancourt and helped to repel a large German attack on April 5. In the early hours of ANZAC Day, 1918, Milton was part of the legendary Australian attack to oust the Germans from Villers-Bretonneux.
He was also with the 49th Battalion when the Allies launched their own offensive in August. The battalion’s last major action of the war in September, supporting the 4th Division’s attack on the Hindenburg outpost line, was also Milton’s last. He became desperately ill the following month and never returned to the lines.
Returning to Canungra, Milton worked on the family farm, Roseneath, on the Coomera River, dairying and growing arrowroot.
Known as Uncle Mitt to the family, he never married and had no children.
Milton died, aged 50, on November 19, 1943, and was buried in the Canungra Cemetery.
His brother Alex, who endured a torturous death after a German poison gas attack on the Western Front, had passed away on May 3, 1918, and had been laid to rest in the Netley Military Cemetery, England.
The local history, Canungra Heritage 1879-1979, tells of the role played by Milton and Alex Duncan’s mother during the Armistice Day celebrations on November 30, 1918, when “the whole district gathered for a procession and sports day”.
“At the Sports Ground the procession halted around a flagpole where the oldest resident, Mrs Duncan, unfurled the Union Jack. She was the mother of two soldier boys, one of whom was killed in action,” read the account.
“During the proceedings, a whirlwind took a sheet of paper high in the sky where a wedge-tailed eagle repeatedly dive bombed it to the entertainment of the crowd.”